JUDIQUE: A local group received assurances from the province that they will be included in an extended funding phase for a project to bring better Internet service to more parts of Nova Scotia.

On Tuesday, Develop Nova Scotia announced it invested $193 million under the Internet for Nova Scotia Initiative to expand internet access in the province.

Develop Nova Scotia called the announcement “a series of scope expansions to existing contracts,” which they expect will provide access to an additional 6,700 homes and businesses.

In Zone 3, the Eastern Strait/Guysborough area, Develop Nova Scotia said 1,342 homes and businesses will be covered by Bell Canada, including the communities of Southside Antigonish Harbour; Monks Head; Kenzieville (specifically Keppoch Mountain, Addington Forks, Ohio, Hillcrest, Ashdale, Pinevale, South Salt Springs, and Beech Hill); Fairmont; Pleasant Valley; Caledonia Mills (including Lower Springfield and Roman Valley); Brierly Brook (as well as James River); Mulgrave (also Auld’s Cove, Pirate Harbour, Middle Melford, and Hadleyville); and Guysborough (which also takes in Boylston, North Riverside, Manchester, and Glenkeen).

In Zone 10, rural Cape Breton, Develop Nova Scotia said 2,241 users will be impacted by Bell’s work in the communities of Inverness (which takes in Dunvegan, Scotsville, Twin Rock Valley, East Lake Ainslie, Strathlorne, Sight Point, MacCormics Corner, Hays River, and West Lake Ainslie); Louisdale (along with Grand Anse and Grandique Ferry); Port Hawkesbury (which also takes in Glendale, Askilton, Creignish, Hureauville, and Kempt Road), and finally west of St. Peter’s.

Claire MacDonald, with the group Better Internet for Inverness County, said there are a number of areas in the county not included in the announcement, including Port Hastings to Blues Mills and Glendale, from Port Hastings to Craigmore, the Margaree area, as well as Troy to Judique.

“This means that Inverness County will have the largest parts of the province which will not receive high speed Internet,” she said via e-mail. “For whatever reason, they excluded those communities.”

But after further discussions this week, MacDonald said the group was told by Develop Nova Scotia that Phase 2 has now been expanded to include those areas of Inverness County.

“It’s not clear, until we’re given maps, exactly where the fibre optic Internet is going to run,” she said. “Then there’s individual pockets of communities, so the Glendale-Kingsville area, then there’s the Judique and Craigmore area, and then there’s Margaree. These are the areas that were identified that had been omitted as of the next phase, Phase 2.”

While there were areas left out, the group called the announcement a “step forward.”

“This recent news, of an expansion of Phase 2 does appear to be good news for Inverness County,” MacDonald said. “On first glance, it looks like the additional scope covers most of our area not previously covered in the initial Phase 2 plan.”

Deborah Page, director of marketing and communications, with Develop Nova Scotia said even some communities not specifically mentioned will be recognized with contract extensions.

“We recognize there remain a few pockets,” she told The Reporter. “We estimate between 300–400 homes and businesses across all of Cape Breton, as well as the Antigonish and Guysborough region, are yet uncovered, and that’s what we’ll be focused on addressing in the coming days and weeks. We are committed to getting as close to 100 per cent as possible.”

And while their goal is 100 per cent, Page said the province is realistic.

“There will invariably be some homes and businesses that are so rural, or surrounded by challenging topography, that they will be unfeasible to reach with technology available today,” she said. “This is why we’ve always committed to more than 95 per cent and as close to 100 per cent as possible, as we recognize 100 per cent is just not feasible. We are confident that we can reach even further, and we’re committed to continuing to work to achieve that.”

And although they are happy the phase has been expanded, MacDonald said these communities will only see better service in 2023.

“It’s still a ways away and lots can happen between now and then,” MacDonald stated. “We feel ongoing efforts are needed to continue to lobby and ensure that folks in Inverness County, and all of rural Nova Scotia for that matter, are provided, with what we feel, is an essential service given it’s 2020.”

Calling their fight a county-wide effort, the group has been in discussions with Develop Nova Scotia since mid-October and held several meetings since the fall, including a meeting on November 21 with three municipal councillors present. MacDonald said the Facebook page “Better Internet for Inverness County,” has been a great help in the lobby for improved Internet service. The group also met with Inverness Municipal Council and Inverness MLA Allan MacMaster to develop a plan.

Their hopes are that, eventually, the municipality will take the lead on pushing for better Internet, MacDonald said.

“There is still is work to be done to ensure that Bell fulfills their commitment with Development Nova Scotia,” she noted.

By expanding existing projects, Develop Nova Scotia said it is continuing to accelerate timelines for homes and businesses to be connected.

The agreements with Internet Service providers like Bell will provide connections to approximately 30 small communities with speeds higher than Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) targets, the province said.

Preparatory and engineering work will begin immediately on the contract extensions, and the province expects all homes and businesses covered by these extensions will have access to improved network by late 2023.

The province refuted claims that rural customers are being charged the same amount as urban customers who have higher speeds.

“All projects that have been awarded to Bell to date under our initiative, and are receiving trust funding, are fibre to the home/business technology, and achieve speeds that are far in excess of those minimum speeds set by the CRTC,” Page explained. “A fibre to the home service in Judique would absolutely deliver the same speeds as a fibre to the home service in Halifax. In addition, the service level agreements Develop Nova Scotia signs with every service provider mandates that the same service must be priced the same no matter where it is delivered.”

Page said Bell is also rolling out a Wireless Home Internet service, which is not funded through the Internet for Nova Scotia Initiative.

“Should customers decide to subscribe to such a service while the fibre to the home projects are being constructed, our agreements also stipulate that customers who choose to switch from one product to another with the same provider cannot be penalized.”

Noting they will focus on those areas not covered by last week’s announcement, Page added that more information will be coming in the new year.

“The September announcement of projects was not our final phase, and we have been continuing to spread the message that we are not done,” she added. “We hope these communities will be pleased with today’s announcement. We certainly understand their concern, and we’ll have much more specific street and address level information available in a few months to provide further confidence.”